In his writings, Swedenborg often repeats the idea that heaven has a human form, a concept that he calls the Maximus Homo. This is a Latin term that can be translated “Universal Human,” or, in older translations, “Grand Man.” (It should be noted that in Latin the word homo is gender neutral, so when some translations identify this figure as masculine, they’re introducing a bias that didn’t exist in the original.) This concept includes the idea that God can be understood as infinitely human, possessing every human capacity we can imagine. In other words, Swedenborg invites us to think of the Infinite Divine in terms of the human form.
This is where the idea that “we are made in the image of God” comes from. This well-known biblical concept is, as we shall see, a fundamental way of understanding the universe.
Swedenborg also invites us to think of heaven in this way as well. He tells us that angels in heaven live in communities, and that those communities each perform a function that corresponds to an organ in the human body. Together, all of the angelic communities form a single unit that is the Universal Human.
To really understand this, it’s important to first understand that when Swedenborg says “human,” he’s not talking about our literal physical form:
No one should think that we are human because we have a human face, a human body, a brain, and all the other organs and limbs. We share things like these with brute animals, so they are the things that die and are put in the grave. No, what makes a person human is the ability to think and will as a human and therefore to receive attributes that are divine, or the Lord’s. This is what distinguishes us from animals tame and wild. In the other world, the way we received those attributes and made them our own during bodily life determines the kind of human being we become. (Secrets of Heaven #4219)
When Swedenborg talks about a human body, he’s talking about the functions that the body performs: taking things in, keeping what’s useful to sustain our lives, and eliminating the rest. In the same way, the Universal Human is not a literal giant human being made of angels walking around up in the sky, but rather myriad communities working together and performing functions like those that take place in a human body.
By this ‘human’ to whom useful functions relate, I mean not only an individual but also groups of people and smaller and larger communities such as republics and monarchies and empires and even that largest community that comprises the whole world, since all of these are human. So too in the heavens the whole angelic heaven is like a single individual in the Lord’s sight, and so is each individual community of heaven. This is why each individual angel is human. (Divine Love and Wisdom #328)
In his writings, and particularly in Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg goes into detail about what types of people constitute the different “organs” of the Universal Human. A good example of how the system works is the digestive system, which he relates to the process of dying in this world and crossing into the spiritual world.
The mouth, Swedenborg says, is a gateway into the spiritual world. Once people enter, at any time they might be absorbed into the body—that is, taken into heaven. But some people are a bit tougher (think about tough food that has to be thoroughly chewed before it can be swallowed and digested). These kinds of people may have been very self-centered while they were in the world, or focused on material gain; they may have been the type of people who sought out power in order to dominate and manipulate others, and they may even have been very cruel people who enjoyed inflicting pain. These people move down the esophagus into the stomach, where they begin to encounter angels who help them confront who they really are inside.
People who realize that they have committed evil in the world, repent, and allow the good energy of the Lord to flow into them—that is, people who leave behind the parts of themselves that aren’t “nutritious”—will be taken into the body of heaven and carried off to the community where they will live and work. Those who continue to resist will move on to the intestines for further digestion. Angels will keep working with them, but if a person truly loves evil and has no interest in goodness, then that person can’t become part of the body of heaven. Eventually, such people enter the “rectum” of the Universal Human, and from there are expelled into hell.
The two most important organs of the body are the heart and lungs, and likewise the two most important parts of heaven are the angelic communities that correspond to the heart and lungs. The “heart” community corresponds to the celestial heaven or the heavenly kingdom, the part of heaven that is closest to the Lord. The heart represents love and also the will or volition, that is, the part of our minds that moves us and causes us to take action. The lungs correspond to the spiritual heaven or spiritual kingdom of heaven, which is slightly farther from the Lord. Lungs (or, more specifically, the air that they circulate) represent the Lord’s wisdom, which flows throughout the universe just as his love does. Lungs also correspond to the part of the mind known as discernment (also translated intellect or understanding), which is the part of the mind where we process information, store memories, and think and draw conclusions.
Just as a human body cannot survive without a fully functioning heart and lungs, heaven cannot continue to exist without the communities that circulate love and wisdom throughout the spiritual world, and through the spiritual world into our world.
Swedenborg describes the correspondence of other organs too. For example, the angels of the nose are people who excel at telling the difference between good and evil; they have, as we might say in idiomatic English, a “nose” for it. When someone says, “I smell trouble,” or “Joe has a nose for news,” we understand that this means they have a special sensitivity or intuitive ability in these areas.
Similarly, angels who belong to communities that correspond to the function of the ear are ones who hear and obey without thinking too hard about what they’ve been told; angels who belong to communities that correspond to the function of the eyes are ones who understand the truth and the good things that come from faith. When we say, “I see,” we do not always mean that we are seeing a physical object. Often it means, “I understand.” Angels who belong to communities that correspond to the function of the hands and arms are the angels who have power because they give credit for everything to God; since they have no obstructing self-importance, there’s nothing to stop God’s energy from flowing through them and manifesting in the spiritual world.
Just as there are many types of people, there are many types of work that angels can do in heaven, and each different function becomes a useful part of the whole. Here on earth, too, each member of a community has the potential to fulfill a particular role and thereby be useful to others—an important part of spiritual growth. The spiritual lesson of the Universal Human, then, is that we, like the various parts of our own body, should find ways to provide a useful function in human society. At the same time, we can appreciate the many and diverse ways in which other people are playing their role in helping us. When everyone works together in harmony, moved by divine love and guided by divine wisdom, there is an image of God—the Maximus Homo, or Universal Human.
The ancient Egypt Book of the Dead is a collection of funerary instructions placed in coffins and sarcophagi in order to prepare the soul of the deceased for the afterlife and judgment. The scenes are dramatically presented in pictures and words. A Swedenborgian view, of how natural things correspond to spiritual matters, suggests that the instructions of ancient Egypt are based on a clear understanding of psychological progression of the soul from the outer, or physical world, to the first experiences in the inner, spiritual world. Each individual has to give an account of his character and is assessed by independent judges seen as various gods.
One papyrus shows 42 deities and the soul has to address each one by name and make a negative confession relating to various wrong-doings.
O Far-strider … I have done no falsehood
O Fire-embracer … I have not robbed.
O Double Lion … I have not destroyed food supplies.
O You whose face is behind … I have not misconducted myself or abused a boy
O You of the darkness … I have not been quarrelsome.
The judgment is made more awesome because behind the petitioner stands a monster, called Ammit, which will swallow the guilty immediately.
Let us consider this ritual of ancient Egypt in detail. If we contemplated our own death, how many of us could truthfully answer 42 separate judges and say, “I have not been loud-mouthed.” nor committed any other contraventions of right conduct? Recent research into Near Death Experiences shows that many have experienced similar evaluation in which they saw a play-back of whole periods of their life and felt they were assessing its quality, wasted opportunities or some meanness. They were not condemned, but clearly, someone was alongside witnessing their reactions.
It is perhaps easy to smile at the monster Ammit since if a person fails the first test and is swallowed up, is that the end of judgment? The human mind is more complicated and exists on different levels and has many talents which can be used for doing good or harm. Each one has to be assessed separately. Let us take as an example a frequent social evil in our society — vandalism. If the mind is challenged by an unbroken window or a fence and needs to smash it, then something is seriously wrong. Perhaps the people of ancient Egypt were more honest during their rituals and put the blame where it belongs as they laid bare the whole mind for assessment, noting which parts of it had been corrupted with its health taken away and harmony destroyed. The mind which can only find its delight in destroying, even in killing, is clearly in a very serious state. It has been devoured by a terrifying monster.
The Christian scripture is just as uncompromising about such assessment which is generally called ‘judgment’. In the words of Christ:
There is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12: 2-3)
The focus of the ancient Egypt ceremony was the weighing of the heart. During embalming, the internal organs were removed from the body and preserved separately in jars. The heart was judged by itself on the scales against Maat, the goddess of Righteousness or Truth. She was represented as a female body, but instead of a head often had a white feather. Her small figurine stood on the scales weighing the heart of the deceased, or she was represented by her symbol, the white feather. Feathers, especially wing feathers, enable birds to fly and to have a wider view of the world below. Similarly, truth elevates our thoughts to give us what we already call ‘a birds eye view.’ The goddess of truth represents the desire for truth which gives us the ability of discernment and separation between truth and falsity.
However, the heart itself can be said to have its own specific importance since it had always been seen as the seat of the emotions, and so it corresponds to our affections. Too often we think that our love is merely a temporary feeling. The ancients had greater respect for the ‘heart’. The idea is that in our love lies the primary seat of our personality. Swedenborg put it very forcefully:
A person’s life really is his love, and the nature of his love determines the nature of his life, and in fact the whole person. But it is the dominant or ruling love which makes the person…. It is the characteristic of a dominant love that it is loved above all else. What a person loves above all else is constantly present in his thoughts, because it is in his will, and constitutes the very essence of his life…Everyone’s sense of pleasure, bliss and happiness comes from his dominant love, and is dependent on this. (TCR 399)
This is an fairly new concept. Love is seen as the very dynamic of our life, of our vital energy and heat. When we love we grow warm in our body. There is a correspondence between the two. When we lack any desire, we grow cold and lack vitality. According to Swedenborg what we mainly love is also the key to our judgment and character. Each person needs to act honestly. ‘What is it that I love more than anything? What is it for which I am prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice?’ Unless we have understood that much, we cannot know what is going on in our mind.
We can only marvel at the high degree of perception about the working of the mind revealed in ancient sacred texts.
Adapted from material by Christopher Hasler first published by the Swedenborg Movement
When the women’s movement spoke up for the value of women it rebelled against the traditional gender stereotypes and proclaimed equality between the sexes. It quite rightly opposed any idea of male superiority and female subservience.
Some fear that any talk of gender is only a short step from women being different to being inferior – thus justifying discrimination. After all, women’s pay still usually lags behind men’s despite a sea-change in social attitudes regarding sexism. And so feminists continue to advocate seeing people as individuals regardless of gender and the term ‘gender’ is rejected as a concept constructed socially to reinforce the power of men.
Gender and science
Scientists argue about whether gender roles are biologically based or come about through social learning. But those like the well known researcher Steven Pinker have discovered quite a bit of research data regarding infants, children and adult behaviour which supports some differences between male and female and how the two sexes can complement each other.
“Research conducted throughout the world shows gender balance in top positions contributes to improved competitiveness and better business performance.” (Beth Brooke, top business professional)
Another example of this is to do with amiability.
“Studies have been done showing that there really are gender differences, that women do bring more congeniality and compromise to the table.” (Kitty Kelley, investigative biographer)
Anyone writing about gender in terms of personal experience can only do so from his or her own perspective as a man or woman. I happen to be a man and so am understandably open to the criticism of being biased. But if I were a woman the same criticism might also be applied.
“Only the creator understands both sexes. The rest of us are one or the other. We know only our own. Few writers are bold enough to attempt to define the differences succinctly” (Alan Grange, Christian clergyman)
The question that interests me is whether we should try to ignore gender as if it were of no relevance. Are there no deeper distinctions between men and women other than their physical make up?
Brain gender difference
There is a growing amount of research finding that brains of men and women do differ. Brain activity is more diffuse for women and more specific for men in relation to vocabulary, visio-spatial perception and emotion.
In their book ‘Brain Sex: The real difference between men and women’ Anne Moir and David Jessel point out that research has shown that the two halves of the brain have a different neurological pattern in men than in women. The connection between the left and right brain in men is less marked than in women, leading to a greater distinction between the two halves and their respective functions.
Men, then, tend to keep information distinct from emotion. In women, the connection between the two halves is greater, tending to lead women to see / feel things with more co-ordination and with less distinction. A woman generally works with her whole brain; a man with one or other part of his brain.” (Anne Moir and David Jessel.)
Working with one’s whole brain ties in with the common stereotype that the female gender tend to perceive in a holistic intuitive way whereas the male gender are more liable to think logically.
Gender related values and interests
I do get the impression that the two sexes have some different preferences and concerns.
I am not sure gender ever won’t be an issue in comedy, because I think that women do have different priorities in some respects.( Jenny Éclair, British comedian)
Is it not a mistake to confuse inequality of value to society of men and women with inequality of gender-related interests?
Any difference in inclination or make up between the two sexes is no argument for them having unequal value or unequal opportunity.
Many women become troubled at any suggestion that their main strengths are heart-centred, as if this were in some way of lesser value. In one sense they are right. The cause of their objection is the reality that – albeit mistakenly – the world does value power and the acquisition of money over the nurturing of people and expression of care.
“ In so many occupations, it is principally the head or the intellectual, understanding side of us which has an intrinsic monetary value, whilst the affections of the heart … attracts only compliments.” (Bruce Jarvis, Swedenborgian writer)
Gender difference in disposition
According to spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, both sexes are capable of intelligent thought and warmth of feeling. At the same time he says feelings of loving concern tend to stay longer in good women and a good man finds it easier to think longer in rational light. The way Swedenborg puts it is to say that with men the mind is elevated into superior light, with women into superior heat. The male is said to be concerned that his actions are directed by the sensible thoughts of the head — or if they are not, he wants them to appear so.
These days such opinions are often heard as sexist — that women are more emotional and men are cleverer — but this is exactly not what Swedenborg is saying. A similar range of intelligence and emotional reactivity is found in both men and women. He says the difference is in perception.
“It is masculine to perceive from the understanding and feminine to perceive from love. The understanding perceives things which are above the body and beyond the world, but love does not go beyond what it feels. (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems